Scoring a fifth triumph at cycling's major races in less than two months after his doping ban ended, Alberto Contador took home his second Spanish Vuelta title on Sunday.
The Spanish cyclist navigated the straightforward and largely processional final leg into and around Madrid with ease to edge out Spanish compatriots Alejandro Valverde and Joaquin Rodriguez in the 21-stage race.
Valverde, the 2009 winner, finished 1 minute, 16 seconds behind. Rodriguez was 1:38 back after having led the 67th edition of the Spanish classic for 13 stages.
Contador crossed the finish line 54th behind stage winner John Degenkolb and celebrated by flashing seven fingers to also represent his 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d'Italia victories, titles that he was ultimately stripped of because of a positive drug test.
"Because of what happened coming in, this victory is very special for me and I have to thank everyone who helped me because I came in without having competed for a long time and things were complicated," Contador said. "Reflecting on it, there are a lot of emotions that are very strong and that can't be explained with words. It's a big weight off of me."
The 29-year-old Spaniard also won the race in 2008 to add to Tour victories in 2007 and 2009 and a Giro triumph in 2008.
He tested positive for clenbuterol en route to winning the 2010 Tour. Contador kept racing while his appeal was ongoing, claiming it was a result of eating contaminated meat. He lost his case in February and his results since August 2010 were erased, including the 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro titles.
Having missed out on this year's Tour as he served his ban, Contador marked his return to major competition with a fearless display that showcased all the characteristics that led to him being called the best rider of his generation.
Contador seized control of the race with a gutsy ride in the 17th leg, a moment he said "would stick in everyone's mind."
Rodriguez, runner-up at the Giro d'Italia, looked set to win his first major race after taking the overall lead in the fourth stage and then holding off Contador's repeated attacks on other days. The Katusha cyclist emerged from the individual time trial in the 11th stage with a 1-second lead over Contador, an advantage he extended to 28 seconds before the 17th stage.
Contador turned the tables by taking control in that leg, breaking away audaciously more than 31 miles from the mountain finish at Fuente De to build a commanding lead that served him until the finale near his hometown of Pinto.
Valverde managed to get past Rodriguez in the 17th stage to move into second. But neither rider could make up the gap to Contador on Saturday, a punishing ride finishing with a special category climb at Bola del Mundo.
Tour de France runner-up Christopher Froome of Britain didn't have the legs to compete, finishing 10:16 behind Contador's winning time of 84:59:49.
Contador is one of only five riders to have won the Tour, Giro and Vuelta. Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil and Felice Gimondi have also won all three of cycling's major races.
Degenkolb won the 71-mile flat ride from Cercedilla in 2:44:57 for his fifth stage victory in this year's Vuelta. The German cyclist edged out Italian pair Elia Iviani and Daniele Bennati in a sprint finish at Madrid's Plaza de Cibeles.
"Me and the team made history at this Vuelta, so we are so happy about that," Degenkolb said.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.